ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Phoenix Suns

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Last season: Believe it or not, the Suns actually had playoff aspirations when the regular season began. The front office believed that Michael Beasley would be different in Phoenix than he had been anywhere else, and mandated that he be given a chance to be a difference-maker in the lineup. Once it became clear that Beasley was a bust and that the team was headed nowhere but the draft lottery, the Suns parted ways with head coach Alvin Gentry in the middle of the year, and gave the interim tag to Lindsey Hunter.

That was essentially a disaster, as Hunter was directionless during his time in charge, and alienated veteran players while never gaining command of the locker room in the process.

The offseason saw Beasley bought out of his contract, GM Lance Blanks let go, and a new general manager in Ryan McDonough and a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek brought in to lead the rebuild back to respectability.

Signature highlight from last season: There were so many to choose from … OK, not so much. But what struck me when revisiting Suns highlights from last season were the three different times (plays 9, 8, and 2 in the clip below) that Goran Dragic found a teammate with a bounce pass through a defender’s legs for the finish.

Key player changes: The Suns began the rebuilding process by making some moves geared more toward the future than the present, but managed to pick up a nice asset on a rookie contract in Eric Bledsoe while doing so.

  • IN: Bledsoe came over in the deal that sent fan favorite and consummate teammate Jared Dudley to the Clippers. Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green were acquired from the Pacers in the deal that sent Luis Scola to Indiana. Slava Kravstov and Ish Smith were acquired from the Bucks by trading Caron Butler, who came over with Bledsoe in the deal with the Clippers. Malcolm Lee is on the roster as a result of the draft night trade Phoenix made to move up to be able to select Archie Goodwin. Alex Len is the other rookie in place, selected by the team with the fifth overall pick in this summer’s draft. It’s worth noting that the Suns have 16 guaranteed contracts in place at the moment, and will need to get down to 15 players before the season begins. Lee would appear to be the odd man out.
  • OUT: Beasley, Jermaine O’Neal, Wesley Johnson, Hamed Haddadi, Scola, and Dudley.

Keys to the Suns season:

1) Developing Eric Bledsoe: The explosive reserve guard who showed flashes of brilliance for the Clippers playing behind Chris Paul last season was coveted by many teams, but the Suns were the ones creative enough to come up with an enticing package (and involve a third team) in order to secure Bledsoe’s services.

Bledsoe is athletic and speedy, and on the defensive end he lives in the passing lanes. But he’s still raw offensively, and developing him into a consistent player on both ends of the floor should be the primary goal in Phoenix this season. It’s worth noting that Bledsoe is essentially in a contract year — the Suns can extend him a qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent following the season, thus having the right to match any offer he may receive. Even a bad year is likely to net Bledsoe some pretty significant offers, so the Suns need to see what they have in him before committing cap space and huge dollars over the next several seasons.

2) Trade bait: The Suns are by no means done dealing considering their rebuilding situation, and the team has players in contract situations that will be appealing to other teams around the league, especially as the trade deadline approaches. Marcin Gortat and his expiring $7.7 million deal is at the top of that list, and even he knows it. Another interesting name, though, is Channing Frye, who is back after sitting out all of last season with a heart condition. If Frye returns to form as a high-percentage shooter from three-point distance, his ability to stretch the floor will be highly-coveted for his relatively low price. Frye is on the books for $6.4 million this season, and has a player option for $6.8 for the following season.

3) Building a foundation: The most important thing for the Suns to do this season is establish an identity and a direction under new head coach Jeff Hornacek. Once the wheels fell off a season ago, there was no leadership from either the front office or from the interim coach on the sidelines. McDonough appears to have a long-term plan in place from a management standpoint, now that needs to trickle down to the players on the floor. The holdovers from last year have responded extremely well to Hornacek thus far — his challenge will be to keep everyone focused and engaged on improvement over the long grind of the season, especially in the face of tallying few wins against so many losses.

Why you should watch: The Suns aim to play uptempo offensive basketball under Hornacek, and that should be a blast with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe pushing the pace in the starting lineup.

Prediction: The oddsmakers have set the over/under for season wins in the 21-22 neighborhood, and that seems a bit on the low side given the guys in place and the effort we’ve seen thus far during the preseason. With that being said, there’s going to be a lot of losing in Phoenix, but if there’s good news surrounding that it’s the franchise having a plan in place and a head coach that seems well-suited to the challenge of rebuilding that lies ahead. As long as Hornacek keeps his players on the path of continual improvement as the season progresses, the year will ultimately be viewed as a success.

Will Chris Paul play in Game 7?

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The way Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry were shooting it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome of Game 6, but the Houston Rockets missed Chris Paul. They missed his steadying influence on offense, and maybe more importantly on defense — Curry was directing the offense, creating space with his handles then finding people cutting off the ball and draining threes. Paul may have been able to help keep Curry in relative check.

Which all leads to this big question: Will Paul suit up and play in Game 7.

Doesn’t sound like it.

I would describe the mood of sources I spoke to on this issues as pessimistic on CP3’s chances of play.

If Paul can at all go, he will. Three years ago Paul played through a hamstring injury to lead the Clippers past the Spurs, he’ll want to do it again.

This is different. For one thing, Paul is older now, his body will not bounc he is at all limited with his movement the Warriors will target him with Curry and Klay Thompson, try to get CP3 moving laterally and exploiting him. It might now work to put him out there.

But if he can go, D’Antoni will try.

Watch best of Klay Thompson’s nine threes, 35-point night

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Stephen Curry is a better shooter. Kevin Durant is a better scorer with a bigger toolbox.

But no Warrior can get as white-hot as Klay Thompson.

He did that on Saturday night helping the Warriors to a Game 6 win, getting his rhythm and becoming a scoring machine in the second half, finishing with 35 points including hitting 9-of-14 from three, and having six rebounds. He was just as important on the other end of the floor.

“I thought Klay was amazing tonight, not just for 35 points and the nine threes, but his defense,” Coach Steve Kerr said. “The guy’s a machine. He’s just so fit physically. He seems to thrive in these situations. But he was fantastic.”

Thompson will need to bring some of that Heat in Game 7 on the road if the Warriors are going to head back to the NBA Finals.

Backs against wall down 17, Warriors crank up defense, rain threes, force Game 7

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Warriors’ fans have been asking one question since the season tipped off in October:

What is it going to take to get Golden State to truly focus and play up to their potential?

Apparently, the answer is going down 17 to the Houston Rockets in a playoff elimination game.

Houston entered Oracle Saturday night playing smart and with energy, defending as they had the previous two games and then turning that into transition buckets and threes — eight of them in the first quarter. Houston was up 17 in the first and 10 at the half.

However, Golden State had started to defend better in the second quarter and they cranked up the intensity to the level fans had hoped to see in the second half — Houston scored 39 points in the first quarter and 47 combined in the final three. The Warriors were also forcing turnovers, 21.3 percent of Rockets possessions ended with a turnover (more than one in five trips down the court). Houston had 25 points in the second half and shot 2-of-9 from three in the third quarter.

At the same time, Klay Thompson led an onslaught of threes for Golden State (Thompson had 9 threes on the night). The Warriors defense turned into offense.

The result was a dramatic turnaround and a 115-86 Golden State win, tying the Western Conference Finals at 3-3.

Game 7 is in Houston Monday night. Winner advances to the NBA Finals.

“Effort. Intensity. Passion,” Thompson said of the Warriors’ second-half surge. “When we do that, and we rotate, and we help each other we’re the best defensive team in the league.”

While it was their defense that sparked everything, the Warriors also found an offense that worked against the Rockets’ switching defense — more Stephen Curry with the ball in his hands. There are a few ways to counter a switching defense and one is a creative ballhandler who can still make plays — not just isolation plays, but who can create a little space and find guys moving off the ball despite the pressure. Curry was that guy, he was the Warriors best all-around player on the night. He had a high IQ game and added 29 points. With the offense not running through Kevin Durant isolations, it just flowed better (the Warriors best lineup of the night was Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, and Nick Young, +13 in just more than eight minutes).

It just took a lot of pressure from a Rockets team to get Golden State into that mental frame of mind.

Houston opened this game with the same defensive energy they had the last two games, and once again it flustered the Golden State offense. Except, this time the Rockets did a much better job of turning those misses and turnovers into transition points (the Rockets averaged two points per possession on the break in the first half). Throw in some terrible defensive communication errors by the Warriors, and the Rockets were raining threes in the first half — 11-of-22, with Gordon going 4-of-4.

The Warriors had some success with an ultra-small lineup that unleashed Curry, but as soon as non-shooters were on the floor — Kevon Looney, Jordon Bell, and the Rockets were daring Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston to shoot — Houston shrunk the floor and took away passing lanes, plus contested every shot.

In the second half, the Warriors used that Curry energy and hit their threes to pull away. The Warriors were at their best with Bell as the fifth man with the four All-Stars, he brought an energy and athleticism that made things flow on both ends. Don’t be shocked if he starts Game 7 for Golden State.

If the Warriors pack up that second half energy with them and take it to Houston, there is not much the Rockets will be able to do. But do not expect these gritty, feisty Rockets to go quietly into that good night.

Rockets were draining threes in the first half against Warriors in Game 6

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The Rockets were feeling it the first half in Game 6.

Playing with an energy the Warriors lacked at least in the first quarter), Houston defended well, pushed the ball in transition, and then they just drained three after three after three.

Eric Gordon started 4-of-4 from three and the team was 11-of-22 in the first half, which made up for the 11 turnovers and had them up 17 at one point and ahead by 10 after the first half.